Film & Television

Rosamund Pike Illuminates ‘Radioactive’

How do two porcupines make love? Very carefully.

I was reminded of this joke as I watched the first twenty minutes of Radioactive, the creative and satisfying Madame Curie biopic directed by Marjane Satrapi. In what equates to a rom-com “meet cute” for the nineteenth-century physicist set, Maria (Marie) Sklowdaska (Rosamund Pike) is so engrossed in her biochemistry book that she literally bumps into fellow researcher Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) on a Parisian street. They again collide at a performance by modern dancer Loïe Fuller, where they flirt as only two scientists can.

“I read your paper on the magnetic properties of steel,” he murmurs suggestively.

“I have also read your paper on crystallization, which I enjoyed very much,” she responds.

Although Pierre is interested in more than Marie’s mind from the get-go, she is determinedly prickly. We see her fight for more lab space at the Sorbonne and be emphatically denied by a panel of old men. Whether it’s because she’s female, arrogant, the smartest person in the room, or some toxic combination of all three is unclear. Marie is difficult. And, because science — specifically her science — is more important than anything else, she refuses to play nice.

Pierre woos her anyway — first with lab space, then with access to more refined equipment, and finally with his shared enthusiasm for her work. They wed, take some time off to skinny-dip in the French countryside, discover two new elements (radium and polonium), have a child, win a Nobel Prize, have another child. You know, the typical day-to-day of the fin de siècle bourgeoisie, n’est-ce pas?

Pas du tout!

In case we fail to see the extraordinariness of the Curies, the script reminds us, rather often, with melodramatic lines like, “I can feel our work changing the world!” and “This is bigger than both of us!” At one point Marie accuses Pierre of “a glorious need to overstate everything.” One has to agree.

Heavy-handed script aside, Radioactive does a nice job of humanizing a woman whom most of us know of, but few really know about. Marie Curie was the first person to win two Nobel prizes (for Physics, 1903; for Chemistry, 1911) and remains the only woman ever to do so. Her discoveries directly led to developments for good (x-ray machines and radiation therapy for cancer), for evil (atomic bombs), and somewhere in-between (nuclear energy). However, she also raised two high-achieving daughters (the younger, Ève, published a bestselling biography of her mother in 1937; the elder, Irène, won a Nobel Prize herself in 1935). Marie refused to be marginalized for her gender, defying not only the scientific elite but also societal norms, taking a married lover after her husband’s death, and fighting to bring x-ray technology to the frontlines of World War I.

Much of the success of Radioactive belongs to Satrapi’s lead. Pike, who has proven herself fearless in other prickly lead roles (Gone Girl; A Private War), gives her all. An ethereal beauty in real life, she is wan and strained here, with thin, frizzled hair and humorless, pursed lips. Most of her passion is reserved for her work (she’s a dismissive mother), but the depth of her love for Pierre breaks through after his death. She comes apart when left alone with his body and later desperately begs a spiritualist to help her speak with him. In her grief, the skeptical scientist is left grasping at superstitious trickery.

It’s clear that many of the challenges Marie faces in her work and her personal life (she is vilified in the press and cat-called on the street) are due to her gender. But she never plays, as President Trump once described it, “the woman card.” In fact, when her grown daughter Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy, in a brief but memorable scene) asks her about it, Marie insists that the lack of funds and resources were far more limiting. At another point, however, she expresses fatigue that seems related to the more masculine role she’s played: “I’m bored of strong. I don’t want to be strong. I want to be weak.”

Satrapi defended her heroine in a recent interview with Screen Rant. “She’s not a superhero; she’s a human being. And I don’t know one single human being who is just perfect all the time; it does not exist. And it was also, I think, if you’re the only person in the world who has two Nobel Prizes in two different fields, it was not by cooking pies and cookies and being gentle the whole day that you managed to do that. You have to be focused, and you have to work all the time. So therefore, there’s lots of things that you don’t have the time for. For example, you don’t have time for caring about what people think about you or whether they like you or not, because you have another interest in life. And that makes you sometimes a not very sympathetic person. But that is exactly what I love about her, because she’s not fishing for love. So, this is why I love her.”

Radioactive is based on Lauren Redniss’s acclaimed graphic novel, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout. Director Satrapi’s career also began with a graphic novel, her autobiographical masterpiece Persepolis (which was adapted for an Oscar-nominated film in 2007). Radioactive includes visual conventions that seem directly drawn from that genre. When Marie and Pierre describe their work, a straightforward dinner scene is replaced by animation depicting otherwise invisible nuclear reactions. Flashbacks dramatize scenes from Marie’s childhood, while flash-forwards provide an intriguing look at the historic developments sparked by her work. These flights of what I would call “fantasy vérité” are some of the most intriguing and engaging elements of the film. And they make Radioactive as much about the repercussions of Curie’s work as it is about her life. 

In the 1950s, a young boy’s father is persuaded to let a doctor try a new therapy to cure the child’s cancer. In the 1960s, people pay 50 cents to watch a nuclear weapon destroy a mannequin-populated suburb. Twenty years earlier, a peaceful Japanese city is obliterated by the atomic bomb “Little Boy.” And, forty years later, a rescue worker collapses in Chernobyl’s reactor number four. While most of the Curie-era scenes are sepia-toned except for the occasional glowing vial of radium, these scenes are brightly lit and lively. They also deliver some of the film’s most striking images: a small child strapped beneath a giant machine; the melted plastic limbs of the denizens of “Doom Town.” As Pierre explains when awarded the Nobel Prize, there’s no way to predict “whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of Nature, whether it is ready to profit from it or whether this knowledge will not be harmful for it.”

In its use of surreal art direction and time travel, Radioactive is reminiscent of another unconventional biopic, Julie Taymor’s Frieda (2002). However, Marie Curie’s life was decidedly less colorful than Frieda Kahlo’s. Satrapi, and her cast and crew, effectively keep boredom at bay despite — let’s face it — subject matter that’s pretty dry (unless you happen to be a nuclear physicist). Marie intently examines beakers more often than she casts an amorous eye on Pierre or her later lover. Yet she is passionate, interesting, brilliant, and stubborn. (Just not always in that order.) 

Satrapi does resort to a couple of common biopic tropes. The film begins with an older Marie, frailer and timeworn, collapsing and being taken to a hospital. (Curie hated hospitals, having watched her mother die in one.) The film is framed as a memory piece, the highlights and frustrations of a remarkable life, remembered from the deathbed. Similarly, when we see Pierre coughing up blood, we know his days are numbered. These are familiar set-ups, and not missteps per se, but they’re less interesting than the bulk of this fine film. 

Radioactive closed the Toronto Film Festival last year, but like so many titles, its general release was canceled when movie theaters closed due to Covid-19. It was particularly affecting to watch it now while the world — and especially the U.S. — is still trying to manage the pandemic. Much of the debate in this country has centered around whether to accept the advice of the scientific community or the guidance of elected officials. (Curie herself wouldn’t have hesitated to choose a side. And I’m sure you know which one.) Both Marie and Pierre suffered from radiation sickness, and it’s jarring to see them handling deadly material without PPE.

I mean, if the Curies were so smart, why weren’t they wearing masks?

Radioactive is available now on Amazon Prime


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